Transcendentalism, an American Philosophy

As I sat patiently on the plane, ready for my flight to Colorado to take off, a sudden announcement over the loudspeaker broke the chatter of the passengers.

We regret to inform you that this aircraft is undergoing maintenance. Your flight will be delayed, and we will update you with details as they come. Hopefully we will be taking off soon. Please stay seated for the time being. I sighed loudly, realizing that I would be on the plane for more time than I had expected.

Why should we live with such hurry and waste of life?’ said the woman next to me suddenly, We are determined to be starved before we are hungry’ (Where I Lived and What I Lived For, 137).

What do you mean? I asked, tilting my head, Did you read that in a fortune cookie or something? The woman laughed.

No, no. I am an adamant transcendentalist. You seem to be upset that we have to wait for the plane to get fixed, but according to that quote by Thoreau, we as people easily become so busy that we lose sight of who we really are. This delayed flight might just be a blessing disguised as a curse, because it forces us all to just exist for a while without being caught up in other things.

That makes sense. I said, thinking over what the woman said, I’ve never heard of transcendentalism. What about it makes you believe in it so strongly?

Hmm, the woman said, tapping her finger against her lips, that’s a very difficult question, as there is so much about it that I stand for. But for me, the idea of individualism is the most important. Emerson said in his writings that ‘Society is a joint — stock company, in which the members agree for the better securing of his bread to each shareholder, to surrender the liberty and culture of the eater’ (Self Reliance, 3). The woman stared out of the plane window for a moment, clearly in deep thought.

Basically, what Emerson means is that society pushes for its members to conform and follow the opinions of others instead of maintaining his own views on the world. Through his writing, Emerson expresses that although it may be tempting to conform, having your own opinions is important. Non-conformity is key to the idea of individualism, which I believe is essential to transcendentalism.

Wow, that’s interesting, I said. So I guess being an individual is really important to transcendentalists, isn’t it?

Absolutely! Another thing that Emerson wrote was that There is a time in every man’s education when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide’ (Self Reliance, 2). Emerson believes that to be envious of other people is to disregard your own uniqueness and individuality, which goes against his beliefs. He also says that imitation is suicide. By this he means that copying another person is conforming to the thoughts of someone else instead of making your own. If you try to be like other people, you are not embracing yourself for who you are

So he wants people to be themselves?

Yes. It is easy to go along with the crowd, but doing the hard thing and discovering what you as a person really believe is inevitably more satisfying and truer to yourself.

I smiled and nodded at the woman. Glancing down at my watch to check how much time had passed since the announcement, the woman scoffed. I looked at her with confusion.

That’s a nice-looking watch. It looks like it must have cost you a lot of money. she said, judging me with her eyes, You know, Thoreau wrote, ‘But the man — not to make any invidious comparisons — is always sold to the institution that makes him rich. Absolutely speaking, the more money, the less virtue; for money comes between a man and his objects and obtains them from him’ (Civil Disobedience, 236).

Actually, this watch is from the dollar store. I said sheepishly.

Oh, good. I was worried there for a second. she said in relief.

Why were you worried? What does Thoreau mean when he says that the wealthier a person is the less virtuous they are? I asked.

I’m so glad that you asked. I interpret in that quote to mean the more money a person has, the more their priorities are challenged. A wealthier person may start to value objects more than something important like their morality. These people’s actions could start to reflect their desire to obtain or maintain their wealth. Let me give you an example of how this might work. If a wealthy person opposed the government, they might not vocalize their opinion in fear of losing their material objects. In doing this, they sacrifice their virtue.

That makes more sense, thank you. Is there anything else you think I should know?

Self reliance is such an important part of transcendentalism. As Emerson once wrote, ‘Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string. Accept the place the divine providence has found for you, the society of your contemporaries, the connection of events. Great men have always done so, and confided themselves childlike to the genius of their age, betraying their perception that the Eternal was stirring at their heart, working through their hands, predominating in all their being’ (Self Reliance, 2).

Can you explain this quote further? I asked.

Of course, I can. The way I see this quote, Emerson is saying that everyone is gifted with a unique self for a reason, so you should be confident when expressing your opinions. You should have faith that your thoughts have purpose. If you don’t have confidence in your opinions, you will never make change in the world because you will always be too scared of being incorrect in your ideas.

As soon as the woman finished her sentence, the sound of the aircraft being powered up reverberated through the plane.

I guess we’re going to take off soon, I said. I’m going to watch a movie now, but it was great meeting you. I feel like I learned so much about transcendentalism!

Any time, said the woman with a grin. As the plane took off, I knew that I would never forget the conversation I had with this woman.

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